Review: A Golden Wake

Wadjet Eye games is one of the cornerstones of the modern point and click adventure resurgence. While Telltale works on delivering a new standard of licensed titles and Quantic Dream experiments with big-budget blockbusters, Wadjet Eye stays hard at work churning out classic-style adventures with modern design sensibilities. The Shivah and the Blackwell games may not have set the world on fire, but they demonstrate perfectly what made adventure gamers fall in love with the genre in the first place – all without falling back on the bad habits that brought the classics down. They’ve also published a handful of excellent games, including Joshua Nuemberger’s Gemini Rue and Vince Twelve’s Resonance. Now the publisher has another solid adventure to put on their resume: Grudislav Games’ A Golden Wake.

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It’s 1921, and Alfie Banks works as a real estate agent at one of the most prestigious firms in New York – one that was founded by his father, no less. But sales are slow in the big apple, and while Alfie is performing well, the business is struggling. When his coworkers frame him for stealing leads from his boss’s office he finds himself out on the street. With no prospects in New York, he heads south to Florida, where a land boom promises boundless opportunities to a man gifted in sales. Alfie’s ambitions are high – he wants to get rich, make a name for himself, and do his father proud – but with the great depression looming, they could bring him lower than he ever imagined.

A Golden Wake is a work of historical fiction based on real people and events. It’s largely set in and around Coral Gables, a planned community designed by real estate mogul George Merrick. Known as “The City Beautiful,” Coral Gables was made up entirely of Mediterranean Revival-style buildings, and built so that every business was within a two block walk. As Alfie becomes entangled in the city’s goings on, he meets a number of important historical people, from reporters to daredevils to vicious mobsters. The land boom and the depression that followed were a fascinating period in American history, and A Golden Wake does an excellent job turning that history into an interesting narrative. The game feels true to its time and place, but at its heart it’s a character study

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Amid famous, nicknamed figures like Edward “Doc” Dammars and Tom “Fatty” Walsh, Alfie is a bit of an outlier. At the game’s outset he’s young, ambitious, and more than a little arrogant. He believes that hard work and talent will help him get ahead, but the world has a tendency to make young optimists into jaded old men, and as the years go by he sees many of his efforts go unrewarded. Alfie isn’t the best of men – in fact he can be a right heel to people like his brother – and over the course of the game he does some downright unpleasant things. This aims to be a deep examination of a good man making bad decisions, and it hits – mostly.

The story jumps from year to year rather quickly, choosing not to linger too long once what needs to be shown has been shown. This means it moves at a good clip, but at times it feels like we don’t get enough character development from Alfie. He makes certain life-altering decisions a little too hastily, and it might have helped to show more of the cause behind him changing his mind. For the most part the story does a good job at showing what’s going on with Alfie, which makes these few lapses all the more glaring. With that said the story holds together pretty well and comes to an appropriate and satisfying conclusion.

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Mechanically this is a fairly standard adventure game with inventory puzzles littered throughout. These puzzles are all logically sound, and solving them doesn’t take too much effort. They might even be a little on the easy side, but that’s better than being obtuse and frustrating. The important thing is that all of the clues you need to solve them are readily available – at least if you’re paying attention. More interesting are the dialogue puzzles, where Alfie must use his “seller’s intuition” to hone in on people’s weaknesses and exploit them to his own ends. These dialogue trees aren’t too complex, but what’s interesting is that you can fail most of them, which often results in you needing to solve some other sort of puzzle in order to proceed. It’s a more dynamic conversation system than you see in most adventure games, and it’s used to great effect.

Less effective are the mini game puzzles that require you perform actions with precise timing. There’s nothing inherently wrong with these sorts of puzzles – used correctly they can ratchet up a game’s tension – but Adventure Game Studio can be a little finicky when it comes to precision, so you’ll probably have to try the puzzles a few times before you sort everything out. They’re more annoying than they are exciting, but there aren’t so many of them that they drag the game down, and they often showcase some impressive animations.

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Francisco Gonzales has a remarkable skill when it comes to making pixel art, and his talents really shine here. He’s able to bring ‘20s Florida to life with authentic architecture and lighting at a very low resolution, his background animations are something to behold. Seeing pedestrians walk up and down the street as you explore it helps to make the city feel more alive, and I can’t begin to imagine how much time went into all of the dancers in the Biltmore party scene. Particularly impressive is the water, which sloshes quite realistically under the Florida sun. I understand that it’s just a shader effect, but it really helps to sell the ocean and river scenes. It’s that sort of attention to detail that can make a game’s world feel real at any resolution.

As well as it captures the sights of the ‘20s, the highlight of A Golden Wake is most certainly how it captures the sounds. The game’s Jazz soundtrack roars like the decade that inspired it. At one moment a somber piece punctuates a dramatic moment, while at another you’ll hear something that makes you want to get up and dance. The voice actors, too, do an admirable job capturing the lingo and accents of the time, though the performances are a little uneven. When it comes to key characters, though, the acting is pretty damn good.

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Closing Comments:

Though not the most pulse-pounding adventure on the market, A Golden Wake offers an authentic glimpse into one of the defining events of the 20th century. We see it all through the temporarily starry eyes of a man whose struggles were all too common in that time. With period-authentic aesthetics and sharp writing, this point and click will keep you enthralled from beginning to end – and maybe teach you a thing or two about history along the way.

3point5outof5Platform: PC